BAKU -- Azerbaijan hasn't had a competitive presidential election since Abulfaz Elchibey was voted into office in 1992. But the country's opposition political forces hope to change that when voters go the polls in October.
On Azerbaijan's Republic Day holiday last month, a wide swath of the country's opposition came together to form a National Council, headed by writer Rustam Ibragimbekov, 74, who won an Academy Award in 1995 for his script for the Russian film "Burnt by the Sun."
The National Council includes the Musavat Party, Ali Kerimli's Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, the El Movement, the Civil Solidarity Party, the Open Society Party of former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev, and around 15 others.
This development, says Baku-based political analyst Huseynbala Salimov, has captured international attention and that of the Azerbaijani government.
"In the past, the opposition has been limited to unacceptable, Russophobe, marginalized groups. Now, all of a sudden, an Oscar laureate, a successful man, has joined the opposition. Therefore, the government is concerned," Salimov says. "Face it, neither the West, nor Iran, nor Russia has ever shown serious interest in the opposition before. Now there is the possibility that such interest could appear."
Ibragimbekov (aka Ibrahimbeyov) was in Washington last week, where he held meetings with State Department officials and members of Congress. Ibragimbekov told RFE/RL he was trying to raise awareness
of the National Council in Washington and to counter efforts by the government of President Ilham Aliyev to depict him as a tool of Moscow.
Aliyev, whose family has presided over the country since his father helped oust Elchibey in a 1993 coup, is widely expected to seek a third term in the October 16 election, and he has already been nominated by his ruling Yeni Azerbaycan (New Azerbaijan) Party (YAP).
In recent months, the government has taken several measures seemingly aimed at controlling the election process. It has downgraded the status of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Baku mission, possibly as a prelude to banning European election monitors.
It has cracked down on NGOs, arresting activists and accusing the local office of the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute of financing a "Facebook revolution" in Azerbaijan.
And on June 6 Aliyev signed a much-criticized law making the posting of defamatory or offensive views on the Internet
punishable by up to three years in prison.
Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Brussels on June 21, Aliyev defended his government's record
. He said that "there are no political prisoners in Azerbaijan, if you read carefully the comments after the session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this January, which rejected the report about political prisoners of Azerbaijan. I think that this chapter is closed."
On June 19, Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying that "since March 2012, the authorities have arrested or convicted at least 22 political activists, journalists, social media bloggers, human rights defenders, and others who criticized the government. This year alone, people have been charged or convicted in 16 cases."
Aliyev also rejected claims the authorities are interfering with access to information from outside or inside Azerbaijan, saying, "we have a free Internet, and the number of Internet users in Azerbaijan is more than 70 percent and there is no censorship."
Opposition Seeks Serious Challenger
The National Council has evolved slowly since its founding on May 28. Its program includes a new constitution with decentralized power and checks and balances, a parliamentary government, and new parliamentary elections in 2015.
The government has been downplaying the significance of the unified body, hoping that it would falter as past attempts to unite the opposition have. Government newspapers run daily articles criticizing the National Council and dismissing Ibragimbekov as a political amateur.
In a speech to a YAP gathering on June 7, Aliyev did not mention the National Council, but instead accused the opposition generally of following "orders given to them from abroad."
"They are ready to make any concessions in order to come to power," he said. Referring to Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic-Armenian region of Azerbaijan that has been de facto independent since 1994, Aliyev said the opposition "is ready to present Karabakh to Armenia."
YAP Deputy Chairman Ali Ahmadov told a local news agency this week that the National Council was "an ordinary incident in Azerbaijan and carries no significance." He predicted it would collapse "within a short time."
In comments to RFE/RL, YAP Deputy Executive Secretary Mubariz Gurbanli echoed the same line: "First, I do not believe they will agree on one candidate. Second, even if they agree, it will not produce a major result for the sociopolitical process of the election, as they expect. Nothing will change, regardless of who they nominate."
Can Opposition Unite?
Behind the scenes, Aliyev and his party may not be so sanguine.
In recent weeks, Abbas Abbasov, a former insider who is based in Moscow, has weighed in with some highly critical statements about the Aliyev regime. Abbasov served as deputy prime minister under Heydar Aliyev, is a wealthy and influential figure in the Azeri diaspora, and is a friend of Ibragimbekov's. In addition to his clout, analysts view him as a potential source of funding for the opposition.
Nevertheless, with the National Council in intense negotiations over its single candidate, it is far from certain that Ibragimbekov will be endorsed. At a meeting on June 21, the group failed to choose a common candidate.
Although he is popular and well-known in Azerbaijan as a cultural figure, he has little political experience. In addition, he has spent much of the last few years living abroad, splitting his time between Moscow, Baku, and California.
He is a secretary of the Russian Cinematographers Union and chairman of the Confederation of Cinematographers Unions, which unites similar organizations from across the former Soviet Union.
'Too Early To Say'
Ibragimbekov has not openly said that he would like to be the opposition candidate, and he has not appeared in Baku since the National Council was founded. He did tell Reuters in a recent interview that he "would not be afraid" to run, if drafted.
Speaking to RFE/RL, he said was coy about his plans. "I have my own candidate in mind. We'll discuss it. I hope a single candidate will be agreed upon. Several people want me to be the candidate. There are five or six reasons why I wouldn't like that," he said.
"It's early yet for me to speak about this," he added. "I'll disclose my reasons in time. But for several reasons, it would be difficult for me to agree to this."
National Council executive headquarters head Eldar Namazov says Ibragimbekov is expected in Baku at the end of the month and a decision will be reached then.
Gulaga Aslanli, deputy head of the opposition Musavat Party, one of the National Council's most influential participants, told RFE/RL his party had no objection to supporting Ibragimbekov.
Elkhan Shahinoglu, head of the Atlas Studies Center in Baku, says some within the National Council may try to push longtime opposition politician Isa Qambar, who was the main opposition candidate from the Bizim Azerbaycan (Our Azerbaijan) bloc in 2003, as the council's choice.
However, choosing Ibragimbekov would be a game-changer that could shift the way Aliyev and YAP handle the election. "Ibragimbekov is well-known not only in Azerbaijan, but around the world. The authorities would hardly conduct a blackmail campaign against him," Shahinoglu says. "He would be supported in Washington, Moscow, and European Union countries. His financial resources also increase his chances. Unlike Azerbaijan's poor opposition, Ibragimbekov can fund his own election campaign and the National Council. That is very significant, at present."
But skeptics note that even with Ibragimbekov on the ballot, Azerbaijan is a far cry from neighboring Georgia, where billionaire political newcomer Bidzina Ivanishvili financed his own political movement and trumped President Mikheil Saakashvili's ruling party in parliamentary elections last October.
Robert Coalson contributed to this article from Prague and Richard Solash contributed from Washington